As the time crunch for final exams approaches, students are beginning to wonder if just two reading days is enough to finish reviewing. At some of Penn's peer universities, students have the luxury of close to a week off school to study for the final assessments.
This is not the first time students have noted the discrepancy between the length of breaks offered by Penn and those offered by other Ivy League universities.
Penn has the shortest winter break in the Ivy League, with just 20 days off for the 2017-2018 academic year. The school with the next shortest winter break is Princeton, which has three more days than Penn. Dartmouth has the longest, with a 41 day winter break — more than twice the amount of time that Penn allots to students.
College sophomore Grace Ringlein, a member of Project LETS, a group dedicated to combating stigma around mental illness, said she thinks that Penn’s short mid-year breaks are “terrible” for students’ mental health.
“When you have such a short break you basically still have to be thinking about academics the whole time,” Ringlein said.
Counseling and Psychological Services did not respond to request for comment.
Penn’s short winter break can also be a hassle for international students trying to return home for the holidays. Wharton junior Rei Fujita, who flies back home to Japan over winter break, said that she only got to spend two weeks at home this past winter due to a combination of late finals and long layovers on her way home.
“It feels very rushed,” Fujita said. “International students who are away from home the longest – we can’t visit family during Thanksgiving or Spring Break – need these breaks the most to spend family time.”
Penn’s other mid-semester breaks also come up short in comparison to other universities. Princeton students get five days off for fall break, Cornell students get four, Yale students get three, and Penn students get two. For Thanksgiving, Princeton, Harvard, and Brown students get four days off, Cornell and Yale students get five, and Penn students get two days off.
Other Ivies have single days off that Penn lacks. Columbia students get election day off every November, Brown students have Indigenous People’s Day off in October, and Harvard has Columbus Day and Presidents’ Day off – Penn students receive none of these breaks.
Penn is also the school with the lowest number of days allotted to studying for finals for the 2017-2018 academic year. Penn schedules two reading days in both the fall and the spring. By contrast, Harvard allots six days to study for final exams, Yale allots four, and Cornell, Columbia, and Brown each allot three days per semester.
Ringlein said she felt that the low number of Penn's reading days can add to students’ exam-time stress.
“It’s just so hard for people to take care of themselves when you constantly have to do work and you’re never able to take time for yourself and take care of yourself,” Ringlein said.
Rob Nelson, Penn's executive director for education and academic planning, told The Daily Pennsylvanian in 2017 that the lengths of Penn's reading days and winter break lengths are constrained by a Pennsylvania state law that requires every college credit to be defined as at least "14 hours of classroom instruction" per semester.
While Nelson argued that it is necessary to keep the length of Penn's breaks as they are in order to ensure that all classes are reaching that 14-hour threshold, other schools in Pennsylvania have academic calendars with more generous mid-year breaks and reading periods.
Swarthmore College, which is subject to the same Pennsylvania law, has a week off for both fall and spring break, a month off for winter break and five reading days in May.
In contrast to their short winter break, Penn students have the third-longest summer break in the Ivy League: 112 days. Columbia has the longest summer break at 116 days and Cornell has the shortest at 93 days.
However, students say they are not sure that Penn’s longer summer break ease the problems that arise from the University’s short mid-year breaks.
Ringlein said that even in the summer, “it’s hard to take a break” because of the pressure to find a job or internship.
“Even for summer break, everyone is always working,” Ringlein said. “So having just an extra week [during the school year] would honestly be amazing.”
Fujita said that many international students can only return home once a year, during the summer, because of the short mid-year break.
“They should just shorten our summer,” Fujita said. “Everyone knows internships don’t start until the end of May or June anyways.”
In a 2016 Daily Pennsylvanian article, Nelson said state law requirements prevent Penn from making adjustments like a shorter summer in favor of a longer winter break.
“Schools like Harvard can simply shorten their school years, like we used to do, because Massachusetts does not have so many requirements,” Nelson said at the time. “It’s a very difficult situation where we are trying to maximize all our breaks, but are bumping up against these state laws, which don’t give us much flexibility.”
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